I have long believed that the fact that we are the result of a process of biological evolution can form the basis of an evidential argument against the existence of a god. Formulating the argument is tricky, however, and we must tread carefully; many of the more sophisticated religious folk believe they have reconciled evolution with their faith. Any argument the atheist comes up with must not beg the question against these attempts at reconciliation.
In an article on Alternet titled Why You Can’t Reconcile God and Evolution, atheist author Greta Christina tries to go one step further. It is one thing to claim that evolution is evidence against religion, but another to claim that evolution and religion are incompatible. If true, the latter would be a great victory both for the anti-religious, and for the creationists.
Her first point is that evolution is directionless; theistic evolution requires evolution to be a teleological process, or at least the means by which God creates humans, and evolution is not geared towards humans – it is not geared towards anything. So, Christina argues, evolution is not something out of God’s toolbox. There are two main problems with this. The first is that though the process of evolution is not itself teleological, the very existence of it might be. What I mean by this is that the process might be fully natural and deterministic, requiring no divine intervention, and yet God’s foreknowledge allowed Her to set it up for the purpose of making humans. This could well have happened at the start, requiring no tinkering after the fact. To us, the process appears perfectly natural, and yet it would have been done with the creation of humans in God’s mind. The second is that it begs the question. If evolution is a process devised by a god with the intent of creating human beings, then it isn’t directionless. If it isn’t, then it is (probably) directionless.
Christina then explains why she thinks that evolution is directionless:
Random stuff happens: if it happens differently, then different living things survive and reproduce, and it all turns out differently. Yes, the particular forms that life takes right now are wildly improbable — and if things had turned out differently, those forms would be wildly improbable. There’s no direction: there’s no selecting for life to take any particular form at any point in the future.
This would seem to be a point against the idea of ‘direction’. How can there be a direction to evolution when one cannot predict what will happen? The mistake here is twofold: Firstly, we cannot predict the outcome of the evolutionary process, but presumably God, (if She exists) can. Secondly, the ‘randomness’ in evolution is about as random as the randomness in computing – it is merely pseudorandom. In computing, there is a seed number, and then a very complicated equation that produces a series of new numbers from the seed. The thing is, the ‘randomness’ is fully deterministic; repeat the process with the same seed and you’ll get the same results. This is why the seed is usually generated from the system clock – to get it to change automatically. Similarly, the mutations, geographical incidents, and so forth in evolution are all the results of deterministic physical processes. They appear ‘random’ to us, but we only use the word ‘random’ because we don’t know any better (quantum mechanics might include some genuine randomness – I have no idea – but none of what we are discussing is on the quantum level). An all-knowing god would not have any trouble with this – like Laplace’s demon She would know how an evolutionary process acting on some pre-existing matter will turn out, and could arrange the physical matter at the start such that it produced the desired outcome. So, the apparent ‘randomness’ of the evolutionary process is no issue for the theist who argues that God and evolution are compatible.
Christina’s second point is that there’s no evidence for theistic evolution. This is right, as far as I know. I’ve never seen any evidence presented for theistic evolution, other than perhaps the roundly-debunked claims of “irreducible complexity”. The burden on proof here, however, lies with Christina. She is trying to argue that God and evolution cannot be reconciled, not that claims that God had some hand in evolution are unsubstantiated. Does this distinction matter? Yes; the possibility of God having engineered evolution in some way is often brought up as a response to those who tout the truth of evolution as a defeating objection to the existence of God. They might believe in God for some other reason entirely, and yet not see evolution as incompatible with that belief. The lack of evidence for theistic evolution therefore is not a problem for the theist, unless they are claiming that we ought to see evolution as theistic rather than naturalistic. Christina is claiming that God and evolution are incompatible, and thus her second point fails to substantiate her claim.
Furthermore, what evidence would we expect to see? If God set the process in motion but didn’t intervene, then what evidence would show this? Wouldn’t it look much like it looks now? Even if God did intervene, how would we detect it? We observe evolution in a general sense, through specific instances, but we don’t have a record of every reproduction, every mutation, and every physical event that could affect the evolutionary process. Surely only a huge, huge miracle to guide evolution away from one course and into another would be detectable by us, and even then I’m not sure. Lack of evidence, therefore, shouldn’t worry those who are merely seeking compatibility between their religious belief and acceptance of evolution.
I have combined Christina’s third and fourth points into one, as they are really just the same point, and that point is the Problem of Natural Evil. The evolutionary process produces great suffering in humans and the other animals, and this incompatible with an all-loving god. The trouble with using this argument here, is that most atheist philosophers now frame it as an evidential argument rather than a logical argument. This means that the argument does not disprove God’s existence like the logical version tries to do. That is to say that there is no incompatibility between natural evil and God’s existence; rather that natural evil is evidence against God’s existence. The problem of natural evil is something theists already have to wrestle with, even if you take evolution out of the equation. If evolution is false, there is still starvation, pain, and misery, so I don’t believe that this argument shows that evolution is a special problem for the theist. Rather, it is the process that encompasses these already-existent problems – the theist can add evolution to their world-view without making the problem of natural evil any worse for them.
The theist might even defend the idea that evolution helps to overcome the problem of natural evil. If God is a top-down creator then all the suffering and pain is His doing – He designed it like that. If, instead He used a bottom-up process of evolution, then pain and suffering are a by-product of the process. It is perhaps still objectionable this way, but less objectionable than the top-down arrangement. So, for the theist, evolution makes the problem of natural evil less of a problem, albeit only partially.
I don’t believe that any of Christina’s arguments go through, and I don’t think that we have any good reasons to think that a thoughtful religious believer cannot reconcile their religious faith with an acceptance of the science of evolution. We atheists can use evolution to make an evidential case against religion; to chip away at the intuitions that we are the product of a divine plan. When does the soul enter the equation? Why use this process – a process that looks remarkably like it has nothing to do with any gods, and indeed didn’t require any gods? Doesn’t that undermine the idea of God as a divine Creator? Why is evolution not mentioned in any holy books – didn’t they know about it? These are just potential starting points, and any argument we make must be developed carefully if is to succeed.